This trio of retro shmups — Cotton 2, Cotton Boomerang and Guardian Force — have released under the “Saturn Tribute” umbrella (bundled together on a physical cartridge in Japan that's recently been announced for the West, or available individually via your local eShop at the time of writing) and offer more than a mere respectful nod towards Sega’s beloved underdog. These are actual Saturn games, emulated on the Switch. In fact they’re so emulated Cotton 2 still flashes up the same “EXT— RAM FOUND!” message on the title screen, indicating the (virtual) presence of a Saturn’s 1MB RAM expansion cartridge.

It’s not the first instance of Saturn emulation on the Switch (that honour appears to go to the phenomenal roguelike dungeon crawler Baroque) but it’s a trend we’re more than happy to see continue, especially as “cheap” Saturn copies of any one of the three games here costs at least £150 on a good day, making Saturn Tribute appear on the surface to be an absolute bargain.

The emulation settings for all three games are identical, and accessed by pressing the minus key at any time. Two language settings are available, English and Japanese, however this only affects the option menu text — the games themselves remain completely untranslated.

What difference does not being able to understand the story make in a shmup? Quite a lot, actually. For both Cottons it strips away a whole layer of charm — charm that’s supposed to be there and supposed to be part of the player’s experience of the game — and also takes away a reason to engage with them beyond scoring/perfection, making it harder for newcomers to find a friendlier way into the wonderful world of shmups. It also means English players can’t read the context sensitive help (sometimes tactical assistance, sometimes just cheering you on) that show up on Cotton 2’s continue screens or even the names of Guardian Force’s bosses.

All buttons are fully rebindable (directional inputs are confined to the analogue stick/D-pad, however), with the default setting mapping the Saturn’s 'A', 'B', and 'C' to the Switch’s, 'B', 'A', and 'ZR'. It makes sense as far as transferring the physical layout from one console’s controller to the other goes (the leftmost button is 'A', the rightmost button is 'C') but it does mean in-game you’re usually using 'B' on the Joy-Con to confirm actions, a fact only made worse by the emulation setting menu still using standard Switch labelling. Need to reset the game using the emulator’s menu? It’s as easy as bringing it up in the settings and then pressing 'A'. That’s A 'A' — Joy-Con 'A' — not B 'A', which is the in-game 'A'.

Confused? That’s just how these games (don’t quite) work. Anti-aliasing is another option that technically-sorta does[n’t do] what it’s supposed to, covering the screen in a very mild fuzz and… actually that’s it. There are no scanline options at all, nor any chance to turn the meshes sometimes used over 20 years ago to simulate see-through colours into true transparencies, a feature that’s been offered by some Saturn emulators for years now. As far as screen sizes go, there’s original, max (mercifully maintaining the correct aspect ratio rather than stretching the image out), and absolutely nothing else.

On a more positive note the presence of quick saving/loading (one slot only) as well as a short rewind feature and slow-motion mode all make it easy to practise a tricky spot or simply put the games down and have a break, and a brief playing guide can be brought up for every game at any time, showing a few pages of basic information on controls, chaining, and so on. Unfortunately this is as close to any sort of manual you can get with these games, and the controls page is so basic it doesn’t even list what every button does (Boomerang for example only lists the default shot/catch/change assignments, completely failing to mention that the other five free buttons on this virtual Saturn pad can be used as shortcuts for many of the slightly awkward command input shots). So unless you either already know otherwise or take the time to experiment, these games might appear far more superficial than they really are.

The good news sadly ends there, as frame lag is equally high across all three games (which is no real surprise considering how as far as we can tell they’re all Saturn titles plonked into the same generic emulation wrapper) and while not unplayably bad, there is a clear delay between input and action in the one genre you’re most likely to need swift and precise inputs, almost as if presses only register when you let go of a button rather than push down. There are also no extras beyond whatever’s already included in the original Saturn releases — mostly unlocked by default where available, which is as far as tinkering with the games ever goes. This is a huge disappointment and an obvious hole in games that are supposed to be part of a celebratory 30th anniversary reissue of the Cotton series.

Overall the emulation hovers uncomfortably somewhere between serviceable and poor, so it’s a good thing the quality of the games themselves is enough to forcefully elevate this package above its mediocre framework. All three titles possess unique mechanics — anything from multi-directional scrolling combined with 360º turret rotation to selecting a team of characters to switch between mid-shmupping — that stand out not only from each other but other great shmups on both their new and old homes as well.

Cotton Boomerang may look off-puttingly close to Cotton 2 in screenshots but both go off in very different directions before you’ve even reached the start of the first stage and under better emulation circumstances are well worth anyone’s time. All three are more approachable than many more modern “bullet hell” shmups (such as Espgaluda II) simply by virtue of the fact that they don’t try to constantly carpet the screen in bullets or offer half a dozen different modes to play that require knowledge of three different scoring systems to truly appreciate. It’s just a shame such long-awaited and welcome re-releases have been treated with such little care.

Conclusion

Cotton 2, Cotton Boomerang and Guardian Force are a lot of fun, and let down not by their age but the quality of these Switch ports. What should’ve been a complete no-brainer purchase for anyone looking for more arcade action is now something to carefully consider first and possibly wait for a sale or a patch. There are many other shmups — retro, arcade, and brand new — on Switch that are all more deserving of your hard-earned money.